Scrutiny on coaches as Black Stars, Bafana Bafana open AFCON 2021 journey
Respective coaches James Kwesi Appiah and Molefi Ntseki will be under intense scrutiny when Ghana and South Africa open their Group C campaigns in the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations qualifiers with a clash at the Cape Coast Stadium on Thursday.
The meeting of the Black Stars and Bafana Bafana is a renewal of a rivalry which dates back 25 years and has seen the teams clash four times in the AFCON finals, though this will be their first game in the qualifiers for the continental tournament.
The match in southern Ghana represents the start of a new era for the visitors, as they have their first competitive outing under new coach Ntseki (who succeeded Stuart Baxter in the wake of the 2019 AFCON), while the hosts' Kwesi Appiah is seemingly living on borrowed time -- unless he can win back some faith with big wins over South Africa and Sao Tome e Principe in the coming days.
Speaking ahead of the tie against Ghana, Bafana Bafana goalkeeper Darren Keet says the team are confident of victory under Ntseki.
"It has been a good start [under coach Ntseki]. We had a camp in September, but the games got cancelled. But we had a good camp last month and we played against Mali in a friendly match and we spent a good week together," Keet told ESPN.
"Obviously we are heading into this one with a group of players who have been together for a while now. We are combining well together as there are a few new faces which have joined us in the current camp.
"We will give the best that we can against Ghana and Sudan. Our preparations have gone very well. We will continue to work hard in our camp.
"We have to go out there and try to win both matches. We are playing against Ghana away and we have to try to win the game.
"Whatever the result of the game we have to go back home and try to win that game (against Sudan) also. We have to try our best to win every game.
"We have the team and players, who can do it. The coaches have worked well with us. It has been a good few weeks for us as a team.
"We don't have any expectations of where we want to finish. But we know we have to secure a top two finish in order to go through to the 2021 AFCON finals."
Appiah is in his second spell at the helm of the Black Stars. His first, from 2012 to 2014, saw him become the first black African coach to lead a team from the continent to qualification for the World Cup. However, their calamitous performance at the global finals in Brazil, and the manner in which he lost the faith of the players, hugely undermined his standing -- and he has been battling to win it back ever since he was reappointed in 2017.
The 59-year-old's cause was certainly not helped by Ghana's early exit from the 2019 AFCON a few months back. They were eliminated on penalties in the round of 16 by Tunisia, extending the country's agonising wait for a fifth continental title to at least 39 years. Ghana are one of the AFCON's most successful teams, having won it four times, but their last triumph was way back in 1982.
Appiah would argue that part of the problem is the stagnation and under-performance of the old guard, and his squad selection for this week's qualifiers is a step toward renewal and youth. The likes of Hearts of Oak forward Torric Jibril, Spain-based duo Iddrisu Baba and Mohammed Salisu, as well as German-based Christopher Antwi Adjei and Mohammed Kudus of FC Nordsjaelland in Denmark represent fresh faces in the Black Stars set-up.
One of the established regulars, captain Andre Ayew, has called for the team to shrug off their recent lack of activity (Ghana's full senior team has not been active in the past two international windows) and begin the road to Cameroon 2021 on a positive note.
"We have to make sure we start this qualification series really well so we are preparing for this game against South Africa on Thursday," he is quoted as saying by Ghanasoccernet.
"The last two international breaks we didn't have international games, so that's a bit hard for us because we haven't been together as a team for a while. That's not an excuse, our job is to get three points at home. We know it's going to be a difficult game at home but this week we will make sure we start the qualifiers well."
South Africa's Ntseki has made a positive start to his tenure in charge of the national team, with an attacking performance bringing them a 2-1 home win over Mali last month in the annual Nelson Mandela Challenge friendly.
However, the former school teacher, who has worked extensively in the structures of the South African FA and served on the technical teams of several Bafana Bafana head coaches, has revealed that he will take a cautious approach for Thursday's match away to the West African heavyweights.
"But, we have a point [to lose, if Bafana cannot draw] as we speak. So it's for us to protect that point," Ntseki said prior to Bafana's departure for Ghana on Monday. "It's for us to go out there and maybe during moments of the game try to take advantage and maybe win this match.
"But we are not going to go out there like we did against Mali, and pull out all the guns. We have to be very careful. Starting on the front foot can get us an early goal, and unsettle Ghana in Ghana. But at the same time if you give Ghana too much possession they can easily hurt you. They are at home, they will have the support and the confidence. So it's a game where one has to be very cautious.
"We need to manage the phases of the game very well. That is why we are talking of players with experience, players who have been here before, players who have played at the highest level. I'm referring to the AFCON. These are the players who did very well against Egypt (SA famously knocked the hosts out of the tournament in the last 16 round).
"These are the players who did very well against Nigeria in Nigeria [with a 2-1 win in the 2019 AFCON qualification in Uyo in June 2017]. So we are very careful in our approach. Our tactical strategy has to be that one of being protective, but at the same time we should not be dropping too deep and giving Ghana possession because they can always be dangerous."
With Ntseki and Bafana looking to play the role of immovable object, Appiah must inspire his players to be an irresistible force, or it may well be the end of the road for his time with the Black Stars.